With college hockey's best set to skate at Verizon Center two weeks from now and the 16 tournament teams to be whittled down to the Frozen Four by Sunday night, it's time to take a look at which teams might hit - and miss - on the road to D.C. this weekend.
Unlike its basketball counterpart, two big factors are at play in the NCAA hockey tournament. First off, there's almost always usually one team geting a de facto home game for one of the regionals, and this year is no exception, as New Hampshire will be playing at its-home-away-from-home in Manchester's Verizon Wireless Arena. Two, a goaltender in a single-game elimination format tournament leads to a lot of unpredictable results - and broken brackets.
So with that, we'll take a stab at which teams you'll see in two week's time as college hockey decides its champion. We'll wait to decide the champion, since unlike the hardwood, there will be two weeks between the regionals and the awarding of the trophy on April 11th.
Northeast Regional (Manchester, N.H.):
Boston University vs. Ohio State
North Dakota vs. New Hampshire
While Boston University is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, they may have the toughest road to get to Washington. The Terriers haven't been blowing away teams in games, but they have gotten better as games have progressed, erasing leads late and even winning Hockey East's regular-season crown on the final day of the regular season. They rallied to beat rival Boston College in the Hockey East semis and then outlasted Lowell to win both Hockey East titles, and now face a tough test against the Buckeyes in their first NCAA trip in three years and with the Sioux or Wildcats on deck if they dispatch Ohio State.
If any lower seed is going to reach D.C., it's going to be Dick Umile's Wildcats. UNH has made a habit in recent years of pulling off upsets in the regionals to reach the Final Four. Playing in front of what figures to be a rabid home crowd for the weekend, the Wildcats were tied for Hockey East's third-best club and certainly no pushover for a three seed. BU and UNH figure to advance to Sunday's final, and while it might be the Terriers' first NCAA title since 1995 if they can break through this very tough region, the money's got to be on the home squad.
The Pick: New Hampshire
East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.):
Michigan vs. Air Force
Vermont vs. Yale
Unlike some previous tournaments where the Wolverines got some regionals at Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids, Michigan heads east to battle a trio of other clubs who aren't big names, but could prove to be very pesky opponents. Blue opens up against the Atlantic Hockey Champs Friday, and while they should be able to beat the Falcons, they certainly can't afford to look past them.
On the other side, Vermont takes on the host Yale Bulldogs, who won the ECAC. The Catamounts have shown flashes of good play this year, and after making some noise in last year's Hockey East tournament, they will see if they can make a jump into the Frozen Four in the school's first tournament berth since 1997. Figure on Michigan and Vermont to advance to the regional final Saturday, and the Wolverines to be Washington-bound.
The Pick: Michigan
Midwest Regional (Grand Rapids, Mich.):
Notre Dame vs. Bemidji State
Cornell vs. Northeastern
Grand Rapids features an interesting foursome of clubs, of which any of the top three seeds can be seen heading on to Washington. Notre Dame claims the No. 1 seed by virtue of their CCHA title, and the Irish have been one of the best in the land this year with a 31-5-3 overall record. Cornell is back in the tournament for the first time in three years, finishing second to Yale in the ECAC and posting a 21-9-2 overall mark. And while Northeastern was one of the best teams in the nation for the first four months of the season, a late swoon dropped the Huskies down to a three seed, but still a dangerous one.
Notre Dame, which surprised everyone on its run to the title game in Denver last April, won't take anyone by surprise this year, but should manage to knock out Bemidji State and then likely will face Northeastern for the right to head to D.C. The Huskies could give the Irish all they can handle in what could be an exciting regional final, but odds are that Notre Dame will be on hand for its second straight Frozen Four appearance.
The Pick: Notre Dame
West Regional (Minneapolis, Minn.):
Denver vs. Miami (Ohio)
Princeton vs. Minnesota-Duluth
The unusual absence of the Gophers from the NCAA tournament leaves this bracket more wide-open than it might have been had the hosts qualified, but the favorite has to be the WCHA champion Pioneers, who were 23-11-5. The closest this bracket has to a home team is UMD, but even that is a long ride from the Iron Range to Mariucci Arena.
Take Denver to oust Miami, while UMD should bounce out lower-ranked - but higher-seeded - Princeton. Then look for the Pioneers, who won two titles back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, to look and add another title in Washington in two weeks.
The Pick: Denver